I’ve been on holiday for a few days. This morning, my good wife and I were in the rather charming town of Matsue where we decided a sail along the town’s canals would be an agreeable way to pass the morning. The boats were small, able to hold about a dozen passengers, and we lined up at the boarding point behind a Japanese family of five who would be our shipmates. Just as were about to board, my wife, as is her way, decided she had better go to the loo, lest we end up disgracing ourselves by interrupting the guide’s speech with a shamefully embarrassing bottom hanging overboard incident. Anyway, she passed me her handbag, went to the loo and I boarded behind the Japanese family.
I had never spoken to the Japanese family before, so you can imagine their discomfort when the guide turned to them, pointed at me and asked in Japanese, ‘Does he understand Japanese?’ The family looked a tad taken aback and I tried to put everyone at ease by telling the guide that I understood Japanese just fine.
‘Oh good,’ he said. ‘But, anyway, I will speak slowly.’
Now, I know that Japan isn’t as cosmopolitan a place as the UK or many other countries, but still, doesn’t that seem a little rude and patronising? I know any offence was completely unintended but can you imagine seeing someone of a different colour of skin in Britain and turning to ask complete strangers loudly and without shame if that fellow spoke English? And then, when the person at the end of the outstretched finger said that he did to basically say you don’t believe him so will speak slowly? It wouldn’t go down well.
It’s hard to get too upset, though. I dare say most foreign tourists here don’t speak Japanese particularly well. I dare say assumptions can be made here more easily than they can in the UK. I am willing to concede that. Nevertheless, some people do need to learn to give folk a chance or at least ask them directly if they speak the language and then believe their response. It may be that some overestimate their ability in the language and understand less than they expected but that is for them to regret, not the asker to assume.
He didn’t speak slowly, as it happens, and I understood him without problem.